Oxford’s access problem runs deeper than statistics alone

Presenting Oxford’s social inequality as a number gives the impression it can be solved through a bit of adding and subtracting

Since the release of the first-ever undergraduate admissions report on Wednesday, Oxford has dominated headlines.

Statistics have been shouted left, right, and centre, competitively more shocking than the last time Oxford’s access was reported on, in David Lammy MP’s investigation last October. It’s easy to see why the media laps up this data: translating the access problem into numbers makes it digestible, when the reality is far from this. The reason for Oxford’s poor social diversity is not solely the admissions departments’ misguided priorities, nor a lack of applications from underrepresented backgrounds. We need not reject the data that this report has unearthed, but we cannot talk about it productively without acknowledging that Oxford’s access problem is the product of hundreds of different factors, and stretches back hundreds of years to the University’s conception.

The problem with statistics is that, in their wake, blame is tossed from one party to another. Emails I received from vice chancellor Louise Richardson and the English Faculty prior to the release of the data were desperate attempts at damage control, pinpointing positive trends without much acknowledgement of the issues the report highlighted. Media coverage over the past few days has exposed the negative ones whilst similarly skirting over the improvements the University has made. The proportion of students identifying as Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) has risen from 13.9% to 17.9%. Oxford admits more Westminster pupils than black students. It’s unsurprising that the statistics begin to feel meaningless when caught in the midst of this tug-of-war that, ultimately, will only continue to deter applicants from feeling like Oxford is a place for them.

The University will argue that the media focuses on the wrong aspects of this report, as Prof. Richardson implied when she noted pointedly her email that the work of the access team “does not get the recognition it deserves when Oxford’s admissions are discussed in public”, but they are similarly guilty of using these statistics as a mask. The data proving that students from underrepresented backgrounds apply to oversubscribed courses provides a convenient excuse, without shedding any light on why this might be.

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Presenting Oxford’s social inequality as a number gives the false impression that, like a GCSE Maths problem, it can be solved through a bit of adding and subtracting. You can’t just double spending on Uniq and take away some places from independent schools and expect the answer to be social diversity. It doesn’t add up, because you can’t use money to solve a problem that is fundamentally cultural.

To an extent, we are all responsible – the idealisation of Oxford is an entrenched part of our national culture. Just look at Harry Potter – revealed the nation’s favourite book character by a survey on Amazon last year – which, inspired by Oxford’s dreaming spires, is essentially a fetishisation of the private school system, complete with houses, mottos and gowns. We simply can’t resist this fixation on Oxford as a place of alluring exclusivity – an obsession that is only intensified by Oxford’s portrayal in the media. Until this perception is erased, the University will continue to struggle to attract students from underrepresented backgrounds and admissions departments’ decisions will continue to be coloured by an in ated sense of self-importance.

We need to change the way we think and talk about Oxford, and stop reveling in its irresistible controversy. Oxford’s social inequality is a cultural issue, and requires a cultural shift in the way we approach it.